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Successful succession planning – your questions answered


Recently I delivered a webinar on succession planning and how to ensure your board is future-proofed. Those attending had plenty of questions and I answer some of those here, as well as signposting useful resources. I would argue that having a good chair is the most important of NGA’s eight elements of effective governance as a good chair will ensure the other seven are in place. The chair ensures that the board fulfils its statutory responsibilities and remains focused on the strategic objectives of the school. NGA recommend that one individual spends no more than six years as the chair of the board. Any governor or trustee except for those also employed by the school can be chair, including parents.

If despite all attempts no-one wants to take over as chair what is the next step and how long can we be without a chair?

A board cannot operate for any length of time without a chair or vice-chair and upon the resignation of either, must elect a replacement at the next board meeting. The regulations covering maintained schools are clear that the governing board must elect a chair and vice-chair from among their number, and this stipulation is echoed in the model articles of association for MATs published by the Department for Education (DfE).

If no board member is willing to take over the chair position, the next step is to recruit a new governor/trustee direct into the chair role – someone who will immediately start working with the outgoing chair to fill their shoes when they leave – but the purpose of a succession plan is to always have a successor waiting in the wings.

No-one on our board has the leadership skills necessary, what can we do?

There are two fundamental ways to address this situation – recruit someone with the required skills or develop the leadership skills of a governor/trustee with potential. Inspiring Governance can help with recruitment and NGA offers a range of development opportunities for chairs. Leading Governance for Chairs is designed to meet the development needs of current chairs, future chairs and aspiring chairs, and is invariably used as part of the support through the Future Chairs programme. Another option is to attract an experienced chair from another school to chair your board in the short term to model good practice and buy time for succession planning and skill development. It is important to provide continual development opportunities for everyone on the board to ensure that skill and knowledge gaps are not allowed to emerge.

How can co-chairing work effectively and how should the role be split?

Co-chairing can be a successful method of succession planning. As well as sharing the workload of the chair role it can provide a clear exit strategy if you have a plan that limits the number of years in role as some volunteers fear becoming trapped in the role for longer than anticipated.

Co-chairing can be viewed in much the same way as a job-share in an employed role; workload is shared with clear lines of communication to ensure that the full range of role responsibilities are covered and nothing slips through the cracks. The DfE’s Governance Handbook is clear that the role can be shared and co-chairing is a perfectly legitimate arrangement. As it is a joint responsibility both chairs should be logged on the school’s entry on Get Information About Schools and both names will be shown on an Ofsted report.

How can I model good chairing and make the workload seem manageable so I don’t put others off?

Why not ask the board to define what good chairing looks like to them and develop a model of chairing that all governors/trustees can aspire to deliver?  This will also help the current chair to judge if they are being a good role model. Delegating tasks to others not only spreads the workload but also provides opportunities for them to lead, grow in confidence and feel valued. Providing less-daunting opportunities to chair is a good way to build confidence, such as chairing a committee or chairing a full board meeting with the support of the elected chair. NGA provides development opportunities for aspiring chairs who want to develop their skills before taking the plunge, and we also provide a chair’s appraisal tool to help evaluate chair performance so that they can continue to develop and improve their skills.

The destiny of the departing chair is a frequent subject of debate with no clear answer; I think it depends on the circumstances of the board. Some new chairs might wish to retain the support of their predecessor by the former chair staying on the board while others will prefer to establish their own style of leadership. Transition should take place in advance of the change in role holder, and there are several options for providing support to a new chair; the former chair is not always best placed to provide such support. Outgoing chairs may want to share their experience by joining the board of another school/trust.

How do we ensure we do not simply appoint a chair in the image of the previous chair so that the culture is unchanged?

The election of the chair is a board decision and should not be unduly influenced by the outgoing chair. Sometimes a courageous conversation is required if a change in the style of chairing is considered necessary. There are tools that can be used to help inform a decision about a change in chairing culture such as NGA’s model role description for chairs and the 360o chair appraisal that can be used to identify required changes. We often shy away from criticising people who perform pro-bono roles but sometimes the best interests of the school are served by challenging the sitting chair. It might be uncomfortable in the short-term but provides an opportunity for change.

What is the usual timeframe of these discussions and how do we record detail of succession planning?

Developing a culture of succession takes time, probably longer than you would imagine. Ideally your board would have started these discussions before the current chair has entered their final year in role to provide time for governors/trustees to consider and make clear their own aspirations, and engage in preparatory development. It will undoubtedly be beneficial for a period of transition between outgoing chair and future chair, and even if a long transition period is planned handover can be brought forward if the board decides it is appropriate. While it is usually the chair or clerk that initiates these discussions, all board members must be involved as agreeing a succession plan is a board decision. It isn’t necessary to include succession planning on every board agenda, but a regular review, at least annually, would keep the plan fit for purpose. Learning Link subscribers can find a template succession plan in the resources section of the succession planning module.

Is there a specific length of time someone needs to be on the board before they can be chair?

There is no specific time that someone must be a governor/trustee before they can be elected chair, and it is possible to elect a new governor/trustee as chair at the same meeting.  Just remember that only a board member can be elected chair, so the appointment as a new governor/trustee must be done first. A minority of boards that have used Future Chairs have elected the new volunteer as chair immediately because there is a vacancy and this decision has worked well for those boards. I would advocate that the best approach to chair succession is to elect an existing governor/trustee with the necessary skills, someone who is known to all board members and will work collaboratively with the outgoing chair on a smooth transition. As quoted at the end of the webinar, “one of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it's almost a non-event when it happens”.

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